I started riding dirt bikes when I was 12 years old in 1987.
I vividly remember the day Dad and I picked up that used-but-not-abused 1983 Honda XR80 and brought it home. I was over the moon with excitement about it and the bright yellow, Nolan dirt bike helmet the seller threw in with the deal because I didn’t have one myself. $350 never made anyone, anywhere, happier… I guarantee it.
At the time, my idea of riding gear consisted of that helmet and some high top, leather sneakers. I really thought I was being responsible and protecting myself as I bombed around on the unused snowmobile trails near my home on that bike over the summer.
Cue “The Wonder Years” Opening Music…
As I got to know the trails intimately, my need for speed increased accordingly until I was basically flat out on that little bike every chance I got. Fun times!
One Fall morning, after a nasty rain storm the night before, I was out on the bike as usual when I had my first crash.
I came flying around a blind corner only to find a large tree had blown over during the storm completely blocking the trail. Even worse, several broken off limbs were sticking out from the main trunk looking a lot like a giant cactus which I was about to become impaled on!
As with most crashes I had near no time to react, but I hauled in the clutch and grabbed front and rear brake to slow myself down as best I could on the collection of wet leaves, dirt and twigs covering the trail. Aiming for the lowest point of the offending tree I managed to slow down enough to dodge the giant spikes and slam my front wheel into it with enough force to launch myself a la Superman over the handlebars.
As I flew through the air, time seemingly slowed and I took a moment to have uneasy thoughts about the impending landing leading to a painful life lesson in regards to using excessive speed on wet surfaces.
I believe my trajectory carried me 25 feet and I landed on my hands and knees solidly with my head slamming forward into the ground. The full faced Nolan helmet protected my face, but the downward force of the landing smashed off the sun peak from the helmet and a large gush of blood to exit my nose and coat the helmet along with my mouth, chin and neck.
I popped up quickly to check for damage and if there were any witnesses (of course). I was totally fine – if not a bit bloody – and that lesson about what the right gear can do for us as riders hit the mark at an impressionable age. ATGATT Saved My Bacon
What EXACTLY Does ATGATT Entail?
When I began my on road riding experience in 1997 I opted to take a riding course at Humber College in Toronto where I was living at the time. I already knew very well how to control a bike from my dirt riding years and my main motivation in taking the course was a promised discount on my insurance costs upon completion.
I vaguely remember some instruction about wearing proper protective gear, but I don’t recall ever hearing the ATGATT acronym until just a month ago on a Facebook group page I subscribe to where riders often come on and ask questions about recommendations for different kinds of riding.
All The Gear All The Time is what is always encouraged there. They tell me that in the riding courses these days, or in what’s more correctly called Motorcycle Rider Safety Training, the selection of protective gear is stressed much more.
Like many people I used to think any leather jacket would work for riding, but there is a huge difference between a fashion jacket and a riding one whether made of leather, gore tex or a hybrid of materials. Take a close look before you choose one.
The sleeves on riding jackets are longer to stay all the way down even when arms are outstretched to reach handlebars
Riding jackets are form fitting to avoid having them flap around in the wind at speed. This helps reduce rider fatigue, but more importantly in the event of a slide the protective material stays put to absorb the friction instead of riding up on the body and exposing your skin to the ground.
You’ll notice the elbows, shoulders and other areas of high stress when involved in a crash or fall are much thicker material in a riding jacket. The higher quality ones even have composite armour installed there for added protection.
If you go one better and get a jacket with a built in airbag system you’ll benefit even more because according to the data I’ve seen the airbag reduces forces felt by the rider by 90% above what the composite armour does. This is hugely significant and airbags are mandatory in MotoGP starting in 2018 because they are so effective. More about Airbag Systems
Not just any DOT-FMVSS or SNELL approved helmet, a full face helmet is what ATGATT practitioners swear by.
This is a change from when I took the training course…err safety course years ago. Having said that, the dramatic improvement in protection a full face helmet provides is not new information in the riding world.
In 1981 a German Doctor named Dietmar Ott published an in depth report on impact areas recorded in bike crashes to parts of the helmet illustrating the wisdom in going full face. Helmet Impact Zone Diagram
This image has been floating around ever since then showing without the lower front and back portions of the helmet a rider is going to feel the full impact a lot more often than not. The two highest areas impacted are the lower, front areas of helmets which are absent in any type other than full face.
Some safety advocates have even called for mandatory full face helmet laws for this reason.
Gloves are so important for riding, especially on naked bikes where the full effect of travelling at speed is felt by the rider.
Add to that the need to have enough dexterity to manipulate turn signals, levers and other buttons and you’ll quickly realize a cheap pair of gardening gloves aren’t ideal.
Protection from flying bugs, rocks and windchill is key and riding specific gloves are built quite a bit like the jackets are now, with armour inserted in key areas along with lightweight insulation and outer layers which allow hands to breathe.
The extended material which continues past the wrist in a “gauntlet” style shouldn’t be undervalued. In a fall, wrists are especially vulnerable and often injured so don’t skimp when it comes to your hands and wrists’ safety gear.
There are riding specific pants made of kevlar reinforced materials to protect from slides along with other composite/natural fibre blends allowing breathability. Additionally these pants often have composite armour and padding in areas that need the most protection in a fall or crash.
More traditional riders opt for thick leather pants or chaps. Both provide decent protection, but not like those with armour and padding built in.
Denim jeans do protect somewhat, but during a slide the knees quickly are worn away leaving plenty of road rash. They just aren’t built to handle it like true riding pants are.
Incidentally, when you are treated for road rash the method used to remove the gravel, asphalt and whatever else ends up embedded in your skin is very painful even after being given pain killers. It’s a really good reason to invest in a set of riding pants.
It’s tempting to wear running shoes because they seemingly offer good traction, lightweight, breathability and have a good “feel” for using the foot controls. That is all true, but on a bike you really need better foot and ankle protection in case your foot comes off the peg suddenly and catches in something on the road.
Even worse, I have a friend whose foot ended up in the chain of his bike once while dirt biking. He was wearing very well built motocross boots and still ended up needing surgery to repair his ankle.
We can only speculate on the degree of carnage if he had opted instead for high top sneakers that day.
Riding specific boots made by companies like Dainese or Alpinestars are built in a way to offer maximum protection from the elements and physical encounters while still allowing full movement of the ankle to easily control your machine.
They are most definitely better than throwing on a pair of construction boots, which do offer some good protection, but using purpose built motorcycle gear makes so much more sense once you try them out.
I’ve heard quite a few stories of motorcycle crashes over the years from both people I know and those I have met while talking about bikes. By and large the ones who are around to tell me their story personally attribute that fact to the gear they were wearing when it happened.
I spoke to Ralph from his home in Manitoba yesterday about the crash he survived a year ago while out riding his 2015 Suzuki GSXR750. It’s one of those chilling accounts that caused me to lose my train of thought and begin recalling some of the close calls I’ve come through in my 20-some years experience on road. Everyone has at least one or two of those in their memory vault tucked away in the lessons learned category from what I know.
With 34 years riding experience, 10 years of which included drag racing bikes, it’s safe to say Ralph had plenty of skill, training and experience to draw from before he had his first crash. Often it’s new riders that are involved in accidents and we can all chalk the cause up to inexperience, but not in this case. Maybe that’s what’s so chilling about his story: if it could happen to him it can happen to any of us.
Ralph was out enjoying a ride with two friends as he often would. The road was a familiar, double lane type and the conditions ideal. On a long straightaway leading up to a sharp left turn they came upon a couple of slow moving cars and Ralph being in front made sure it was safe to pass them and made his move.
The Perfect Storm Scenario
He got around the cars easily and came back into the correct lane to carry on with the ride, but had to make a quick maneuver in order to dodge a flattened Bugs Bunny in his lane. No problem for him, a “double-bump” of his bars and he was around, then past the road pizza… only to discover to his horror an imposing piece of split firewood lying directly in his only possible new path.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune to run over a large obstacle like this you will never forget it. Whether it’s roadkill, chunks of tire tread or firewood these things can take your front or rear wheel right out from under you, sending you sliding down the road in the blink of an eye.
To his credit and because of the high performance bike he was on, Ralph managed to evade the wood, but in doing so was forced too close to the edge of the road entering the corner and he just plain ran out of room to work with.
Listening to Ralph describe leaving the asphalt then fighting for traction in the gravel while desperately braking as hard as he dared without locking up the wheels was gut wrenching for me to imagine; along with the terror of that moment for him as time slowed down whilst he gradually lost the battle with the Laws of Physics.
Realizing he couldn’t fight the bike back on the road he had no choice but to instead roar down into the ditch and try to ride it out there. To me his description of the experience was palpable.
His bike struck the approach to a driveway, narrowly missing a steel culvert and sent his body flying up and away through the air approximately 100 feet away! Ralph described how he was aware of his helmet striking several branches of the nearby trees lining the road, even slowing his flight somewhat and turning him in such a way that he landed with full force on his right leg.
He can’t remember much of anything after that moment save waking up in the hospital a few days later only then to realize the amount of damage his body had sustained.
Here’s a list of Ralph’s injuries:
Deep scratch on end of his nose
Shattered right ankle, compound fracture to right tibia and fibula, right knee just below the joint fractured,
4 vertebrae with compression fractures: one lower, two mid and one upper
8 ribs broken
Dislocated left shoulder and left hip
No permanent brain damage, but concussion symptoms persist even now a year later
A bone infection caused painful problems during his 5.5 week recovery in the hospital and muscle atrophy issues around the spine are ongoing with surgeries planned to try and correct it
PTSD triggered by the sound of sirens and nightmares are common
It Could Have Been Much Worse
The whole series of events happened so fast that the people driving the cars Ralph passed didn’t see him leave the road and crash, nor did one of his friends riding with him. That friend actually rode several kilometers ahead looking for Ralph before coming back and finding him back at the turn.
The owner of the home he crashed in front of called for an ambulance which happily was already close by. It arrived, stabilized him and loaded him up for transport even before his friend made it back to the crash scene.
Still more incredible was the fortuitous collection of people who stopped to help after the crash:
The second person on scene was a Neurosurgeon
The third and fourth were Volunteer Fire Department Paramedics
Ralph says he wasn’t a religious person before the crash, but he has found a new perspective on life after considering more than just coincidence or luck seemed to be at play that day. In reality, it’s nothing short of a miracle he wasn’t paralyzed or killed from what I can tell.
A large part of the credit goes to his protective gear too. He was decked out in MOST of his good quality equipment that day, but for whatever reason neglected to wear his riding boots. He’s convinced the damage sustained to his right leg would have been lessened had he been a little wiser in his choice of footwear.
Ralph is a near fanatical supporter of the ATGATT mindset now. Price has little bearing or consideration anymore for him. I was deeply humbled and given food for thought listening to him talk about it.
Thank You Nice Sales Lady
An interesting point was his choice of helmet that day. It wasn’t a full face style, but was a DOT approved, Harley Davidson brand open face.
Ralph owes a huge debt of gratitude to the saleswoman he purchased it from because she insisted he buy one that fit him correctly. He attempted to instead buy one they had in stock which was one size too big in order to have it sooner, but the wiser saleswoman stood her ground and refused to sell it to him.
Instead she ordered the correct size despite risking losing the sale. I have encountered a similar attitude with sales staff at Harley dealerships myself.
The Unexpected Toll
Working now with psychologists to learn to accept and work with his new reality of lifestyle Ralph is upbeat and focused on the positive aspects that have come out of the experience.
Being at home the last year while recovering and having to rely on his wife and children has brought them closer together and punctuated what’s really important in life.
His bike riding days and outdoorsy, active lifestyle are basically behind him now as he can’t lift anything and his mobility will likely remain very limited. He’s only beginning to get to the point physiotherapy could begin to get him walking around on his own again. Steady progress through positivity is key, and I still hold out hope for him to recover beyond expectations in time.
Fortunately for Ralph, the insurance system set up in Manitoba covers victims of crashes financially in a way that won’t add an extra layer of financial stress for survivors like him. He is very grateful for that, but I imagine this kind of system may not be necessarily found everywhere there are bikers.
A sobering thought for those who may not have adequate personal insurance coverage or benefits through their workplace.
One Broken Biker
I’m a member of a non-profit, charity based in Calgary, Alberta named OBB or One Broken Biker.
It’s through this group I met Ralph, learned of his story and approached him about sharing it with others through bestbeginnermotorcycles.com.
OBB raises funds through donations, group rides, merchandise sales and other functions to provide at least some limited financial support to injured riders and their families.
At this writing, they have helped 60 injured riders across Alberta this year alone.
They are staffed completely by volunteers who put in many hours running the fundraisers and personally visiting those injured to provide some financial and moral support. It’s a beautiful movement run by enthusiastic and caring people looking to help take the edge off of others’ suffering when tragedy strikes the biking community.
It was created not long after a near fatal crash in 2012 involving Glenn Lyth the Father of OBB’s founder Ashlee Atkin. Glenn recovered, still rides to this day happily and the emotional and financial hardship they endured as a family was the inspiration for reaching out to others facing similar trying times.
As I said, these are good people doing good work.
Closing Thoughts: What Will You Choose To Do?
I think Ralph will be looking to take on a role with OBB or another group once he’s better healed from his injuries. He already can be found harping at local riders to always wear the best protective gear they can afford. I predict he will become a well known advocate in the future.
I hope I haven’t come across as being preachy on this topic because that would be disingenuous on my part, even hypocritical since I am not exactly an ATGATT fanatic. I’m just trying to present the facts for consideration.
I love to wear my open face helmet while riding my Ultra Classic. The world is clearer and the sun and wind on my face feels wonderful.
In fact, recently while I was riding in Montana where they don’t have mandatory helmet use laws I took the opportunity to ride for about 15 minutes sans helmet to see what all the fuss was about. I freely admit that I get it. It was a moment filled with an undeniable feeling of freedom and greater riding comfort than I’ve ever had.
I’m painfully aware of the potential cost to me, my loved ones and all those around me by not embracing ATGATT completely. I consider myself an open minded person willing to change when presented with a solid argument to do so…
I’m starting to see the light on this one.
More poignantly, after I shared Ralph’s story with my wife she strongly urged me to consider buying a $2,200 airbag jacket system I wrote an article about last month.
That would be a significant financial investment in my health and the wellbeing of my family that I think I need to consider seriously.
I’m changing my mind on this hopefully before I no longer have the option of doing so.
How about you the ones reading this? Are you ATGATT or AlmostATGATT?
If you’re already there, I encourage you to stick with it. Don’t give in on a hot and steamy day to shed some gear in exchange for comfort.
Similarly, there are no “quick” rides where you don’t need your jacket, boots, etc. Stay smart as you are now, because once you ring the bell of shedding some gear it’s really hard to unhear it.
Will spending $2,000 now ensure you ride well into your 60s or maybe 70s? Will it prevent you from having to recover from serious injury?
I can’t answer that question for everyone since I do know people who have ridden bikes their entire life without ever having serious injury and without necessarily following ATGATT ideology to the letter.
On the other hand, logic, reason and good sense tell me the wiser choice is always to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.